On December 1, 2108 at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, the Los Angeles based JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble will celebrate its 25th Anniversary with a concert titled FREEDOM! JAZZ! DANCE!, the third and final installment in the company’s multi-year “breath” trilogy. The concert features choreography by founding artistic director Pat Taylor, with music direction by Paul Legaspi and Ark Sano. I met up with Taylor at the Nate Holden for the interview not only to help promote this momentous event, but to learn more about her and the company’s artistic history.

Pat Taylor – Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Taylor is a third-generation Los Angeleno, raised in a family with great ties to jazz music, including a grandfather who was a popular jazz drummer during the 1930s and 1940s. It was not until much later, however, that Taylor found her own personal connection to jazz through her studies in dance and teaching jazz dance while working abroad.

As a child Taylor followed her three brothers to public parks where they played baseball and it was there that she came across a dance class taking place in a community room. At that moment the goddess Tersichore cast her spell over the curious and talented nine-year-old. She began taking ballet, modern, jazz and tap classes within the Parks and Recreation system and followed her teacher wherever she migrated. Taylor wrote in the Introduction to her MFA Thesis “I still fondly recall preforming our jazz warm up exercises to classics like Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk”, and Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Green Onions.”

Around the age of thirteen, Taylor came across the R’Wanda Lewis Afro-American Dance Company and described it as a life-changing moment. Through LA’s Summer Youth Employment Program, Taylor, and around 40 other teens, received the job opportunity of studying with this professional dance company for five days a week, five hours each day. Taylor was introduced to the Katherine Dunham Technique and was awakened to another approach to jazz dance and the idea of a black dance aesthetic, and she eventually became a member of R’Wanda Lewis’ youth company. “We danced wide stanced to live drumming with deeply bent knees and a feeling of rootedness in densely layered phrases of movement.” (Quote from Taylor’s Introduction)

She majored in dance at UCLA, was a full scholarship student at Alvin Ailey, and danced briefly with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. It was after returning to America following a seven-year teaching jazz dance and choreographing gig in Stockholm and Helsinki (a job that she got by answering an ad posted at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center), however, that Taylor decided to form her own company. She had experienced that jazz dance and music were highly respected throughout Scandinavia and Europe and made a commitment to herself that she would only use jazz music while teaching and choreographing. After listening to her describe this period in her life, it was clear that Taylor was in the process of discovering and developing her own artistic voice.

Taylor returned to Los Angeles in 1992 and opened a dance studio The Dance Collective in the Leimert Park area, directly across the street from The World Stage, a jazz performance space. She went there regularly and met a group of young and very popular jazz musicians called Black/Note under the direction of bassist Marcus Shelby. Once she got to know them, she shared her idea of a project focused around the work of African-American artist Romare Bearden who worked in several types of media including political cartoons and illustrations, oils and collages.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble - Photo courtesy of the company.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble – Photo courtesy of the company.

Taylor had long admired Bearden’s work and found that his collages felt improvisational and conversational and that she and the musicians could use that idea to create a dance together. She and Shelby sat together and studied a coffee table book of Bearden’s work and other resources, and after many discussions, came up with an idea of how to proceed.

Knowing that choreographer Samuel Donlavy was presenting a showcase series at the Ivar Theater, Taylor spoke to a few of her dance friends and together they created a work that interpreted three collage works by with an original jazz music composition performed live. There were four dancers and three musicians who worked on this first piece and because they knew that they had created something special, decided to continue working together. Ultimately JazzAntiqua’s first full-length work “Midtown Sunset,” inspired by 12 Bearden collages premiered in 1994.

It was her early years with the R’Wanda Lewis Afro-American Dance company that guided her toward her current path and Taylor honors that this road was first blazed by such renown black dancers and choreographers as Talley Beatty, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham, The Nicholas Brothers, Eartha Kitt, Arthur Michell and many, many others.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble was founded in 1993 and the original dancers in the company were Taylor, Darien Gold, Raymond Lewis and Ronald Burton. I asked Taylor where the company’s title came from and she explained how she had seen it on a poster somewhere in Europe and the name had always stuck with her. “It always gave me this feeling of jazz classic.”

The breath trilogy began when Taylor was drawn to an exploration of breath in jazz music and movement while working on her master’s degree at Goddard College. It was a self-directed program where students designed their own program of study within interdisciplinary arts. There, she did an examination of the jazz esthetics across disciplines of Visual Arts, Theater, Literature, Spoken Word, Dance and Music. Using the company’s Community Salon event series of communal conversations and exchange of ideas to further delve into notions of breath, Taylor continued her exploration into the philosophical significance of breath in jazz with her dancers. After the first concert that focused on this concept, the company found that they were not finished and so went on to create a second.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble - Photo courtesy of the company.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble – Photo courtesy of the company.

In her thesis introduction Taylor wrote, “I loved exploring in movement the juxtaposition of disparate characteristics and contrasting dynamics that manifest as a distinctive off-centered balance: fiery and cool, propelled and laid back, taut and expansive, melodic syncopation and accented flow, sharp edges and rounded corners. I discovered that these seemingly contradictory elements provided a tension that at the same time afforded a wonderful sense of freedom and release.” The results of that journey produced what is now known as JazzAntiqua’s “breath trilogy” with FREEDOM! JAZZ! DANCE! becoming the third and final installment.

During its 25-year history, JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble has toured nationally and internationally and throughout has continued to work with live musicians, and to incorporate spoken word and song. Taylor celebrates the jazz traditions and considers them to be “a vital thread in the cultural fabric of African American history and heritage.” She strives to incorporate how she sees the world, along with her experiences as a black woman. Without setting politics or social protest as the primary focus within her work, she finds that it is nevertheless inherent in her approach to expressing jazz.

The concert at the Nate Holden will feature the poetry of special guest Peter J. Harris, a recipient of the 2017/18 COLA Fellowship of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Harris is the founder and artistic director of Inspiration House, and the founding director of The Black Man of Happiness Project. Also featured is the music of Gregory Porter, Kamasi Washington, Eddie Harris, Miles Davis and others “for a distinctive mining of the jazz legacy-continuum, and an evening of masterful storytelling”.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble - Photo courtesy of the company.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble – Photo courtesy of the company.

Harris will perform some of his original work but for the most part it will be incorporated within the music and movement. “We will also perform with an actor/singer, Ava Dupree, have worked with since our early days.” Taylor said. “We try to create a jam session feel so that everything gets melded together.

This concert will also feature the introduction of JazzAntiqua’s teen dance ensemble under the direction of company member Keisha Clark-Booth. The company’s dance classes are held in the studio located in the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center and Taylor often has teenage dancers join the adult open company classes. Recently they have found a way to create this junior company and incorporate special projects for them to have an opportunity to perform. This is a vehicle used by several dance companies to nurture young dancers and to use as recruitment tool into the professional company. There are seven young dancers performing a new work on the concert, choreographed by JazzAntiqua company member Chris Smith.

Because this is the 25th anniversary concert, I asked if there would be any repertory works that span over that period. Taylor explained that because JazzAntiqua often works with original musical compositions that are performed live onstage by the composer and their group, it is difficult to reproduce older works. She admitted that she has most of the older sheet music but said that it always depends on which musicians she is collaborating with at the time. Reading between the lines, I think that Taylor, like most choreographers, prefers to create and perform new works.

When asked if we had covered everything that she wanted the readers to know, Taylor said that she always likes to share her perspective on jazz dance and what she strives to express in her work.  “We always say that it is the movement in the music, the physical manifestation of the music, as well as the history and the lineage – the whole continuum of the art form, and where it leads as we look toward the future.” This includes the social and political implications that are reflected into the work. Taylor explained that jazz dance came out of what was called “original jazz dance” or what novelist, social critic Ralph Ellison calls “the public jazz dance”; dance created in clubs and at other social gatherings in relationship to and in conversation with jazz music. Because Taylor’s movement is inspired by music that is reflective of what is transpiring in the world, she said that it is impossible for her dances not to be in response to the current political and social environment.

When people leave the theater following the concert, Taylor wants them “to leave knowing that JazzAntiqua is real people telling real stories that are universal. It’s through a specific lens. It’s definitely through an African-American perspective, but the stories, they still touch…. we all have love, struggles, dreams, successes, and failures.

The eleven dancers scheduled to perform include Keisha Clark Booth, Justin Edmonson, Albertossy Espinoza, Tashara Gavin-Moorehead, James McQueen, Sarah Platte, Latrice Postell, Jason Poullard, Autumn Randolph, Stacey Strickland, and Shari Washington Rhone. The musicians performing are Ark Sano (piano), Paul Legaspi (drums), Derf Reklaw (percussion, saxophone, flute), and Paul Livingstone (bass).

Four visual artists who have a relationship with JazzAntiqua were invited to create new works in the spirit of Freedom Jazz Dance and in celebration of the company’s 25th anniversary. The artists whose work will be exhibited in the theater lobby include Yrneh Gabon Brown, Karen Guyot Cheval, Michael Massenburg, and Carlos Spivey.

JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble will perform FREEDOM! JAZZ! DANCE! at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Saturday, December 1, 2018 at 8 PM. The theater is located at 4718 West Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. Tickets priced at $25 and $35.

To purchase tickets, click here.  Or call the theatre box office at (323) 964-9766. For more information, contact: info@jazzantiqua.org.

For further information on JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, click here.

Featured image: JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble – Photo courtesy of the company.